In this 2005 photo, Caitlin Woo, 23, a Teach for America “corps member” teaches sixth graders at Public School 178 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The wait is on for college students across the country, as tens of thousands await responses from the Teach For America (TFA) program. Last week, TFA closed its application for the year, leaving some 57,000 applicants to just wait before finding out if they’ll be joining the undergraduate teaching cohort.
Since its launch in 1990, TFA has recruited over 28,000 recent college graduates into its program, where they commit to two years of teaching in low-income school districts across the country. And while many of TFA’s participants express interest in education, the program attracts students from all majors and colleges, from the Ivy Leagues to public universities.
“When we evaluate applications, we look for people of all backgrounds,” said Kaitlin Gastrock, the managing director of regional communications for TFA. “It doesn’t matter too much if you majored in education, economics or psychology as an undergraduate — it’s your experiences that really count.”
With a rising number of applicants — seeking promise of two years of employment, along with a full salary and health benefits — comes a more competitive acceptance rate. In 2011, the program accepted just 11% of its applicants, according to The Washington Post.
“Over the past several years, Teach for America has become a more elite program,” said Paul Schrieber, a senior at the University of Michigan who considered applying to TFA. “Nowadays, UPenn and Duke have higher acceptance rates than TFA.”
The lowered acceptance ratings serves as a deterrent for one of the biggest criticisms of TFA: It’s a way to cushion the resumes of college graduates who don’t know what to do after undergrad.
“I’m sure there are people out there who figure, hey, I don’t know what I want to do — I’ll just apply to TFA,” said Kayleigh Wettstein, a TFA alum who now teaches in Nashville.
“But this is a two-year commitment, and often one of the hardest things you’ll undertake. If your heart isn’t in it, you’re really not going to be happy.”
“Teaching is an incredibly challenging profession,” added Gastrock. “Anyone who’s looking to pad their resume will be disappointed to find out the program requires a lot from them.”
TFA’s process doesn’t end with acceptance into the program. Once applicants get in, they must enroll in a specialized teaching program taught in the summer before they begin teaching.
“The summer training was overwhelming at times,” said Wettstein. “Going through the institute, all sorts of information is thrown at you, from facts about the achievement gap to grappling with lower district budgets.”
Wettstein paused. “But once I entered the classroom, I could see the benefits of the training put into place.”
Wettstein, who never intended on teaching while in undergrad, said the training process in TFA was so critical to her success that she decided to go back and help with the summer training process.
“I found my passion through Teach for America. I want to help other students find theirs, too.”
But while thousands of college seniors wait for their acceptance into the program, some education experts doubt the merits of TFA.
“TFA sounds perfect on paper — bright college students going into urban school districts,” said Su Jin Jez, an assistant professor of public policy at California State University – Sacramento. “But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
While college graduates might find direction through TFA, Jez warns that the program might not be as helpful for those it serves: K-12 students.
“The impacts are mixed when it comes to academic achievement,” said Jez, who authored Teach for America: A Review of the Evidence, a 2010 study which examined the effects of TFA on school performance.
The program, Jez said, is most effective in districts with a low number of teachers available. But after the economy took a downturn in 2008, a surplus of teachers arose in districts across the country, as many look to complement their salaries with teaching.
“When you can’t bring in credentialed teachers into a district, then TFA is a good option,” said Jez. “But when districts start bringing in unexperienced TFA students instead of more trained teachers, we start to see problems.”
“If we’re really committed to social justice, we need to make sure we have the best teachers possible,” Jez added. “And research shows that that means teachers with experience.”
Nevertheless, Wettstein argues that the two years in TFA can really push students toward pursuing education.
“I never considered education before Teach for America,” said Wettstein. “Now, I wake up every day and can’t wait to go to work. I don’t know a lot of people who can say that just three years out of college.”
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